Text: Luke 1:39-45
“From east to west, from shore to shore let ev’ry heart awake and sing the holy child whom Mary bore, the Christ, the everlasting king. Behold, the world’s creator wears the form and fashion of a slave; Our very flesh our maker shares, His fallen creatures all to save.” It feels a little weird to be singing Christmas hymns in July, doesn’t it? When I was a child, we would sometimes go out for breakfast after church. The place we’d usually go was called Old Country Buffet. Next to the restaurant was an electronics store, which had a large sign out front. Every year, come July, they would put on the sign in big letters “Christmas in July Sale.” They would mirror the sales you normally see around Christmas time in this quieter part of the year.
Today we celebrate a better Christmas in July. Today the Church pauses to celebrate the visit Mary, the mother of our Lord, paid to Elizabeth, her cousin. Elizabeth herself was pregnant, even in her old age, with John the Baptist. When Mary’s greeting reached her ears, the unborn John leaped in the womb and Elizabeth was led by the Holy Spirit to confess her faith in Jesus, while He was yet unborn. Though we celebrate His birth in December, even in the womb, Christ our God has come to save us. In the Visitation, John the Baptist, Elizabeth, and Mary, all bear witness that the Son of God has come to us.
We’ll look at the text today in three parts: first, what prompted this special visit; second, what happened at this visit; and, third, what does it mean? Today we’re in St. Luke’s Gospel. Last year, when we celebrated this day, we talked about how the Holy Spirit led St. Luke to write down an orderly course of the things that happened. To some extent, the other Gospels are arranged by theme, but St. Luke caused by the Spirit’s inspiration to write a straight-telling of all that happened. That meant beginning the Gospel not exactly with Jesus, but with John the Baptist. In Malachi 4, the last chapter of the Old Testament, God promised to send his messenger ahead of the Messiah. This forerunner would speak in the spirit of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and change the attitudes of the disobedient to righteousness.
So, St. Luke’s Gospel begins with the angel Gabriel appearing to the elderly priest Zechariah as he served in the temple. Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth were old and childless. And, in fact, Elizabeth was barren. Yet, they remained faithful to God’s Word and promises. Zechariah had been chosen by lot to go into the temple and burn incense. While he offering to the Lord, Gabriel appeared and said, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.” Moreover, Gabriel said, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb…It is he who will go as a forerunner before the Lord.” So, Elizabeth – Mary’s cousin – became pregnant with John the Baptist in her old age.
Six months later, Gabriel was again sent by God – this time to Mary. He said to her, “Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High…Behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age…for nothing will be impossible with God.” After Gabriel announced the birth of the forerunner of the Messiah to Elizabeth, he announced the birth of Jesus to Mary. Gabriel offered this proof to Mary that all this would truly happen: Elizabeth, in her old age, was sixth months’ pregnant. Scripture tells us that, up to this point, Elizabeth kept herself hidden. Having heard this Word of the Lord through Gabriel, “In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town of Judah.”
We’re looking at this text, our Christmas in July, in three parts. We’ve learned now what led to the Visitation. Elizabeth, though both old and barren, had become pregnant. Mary herself was pregnant with Jesus, and went with haste to see her cousin and rejoice. Now, we read what happened at the Visitation. The text says, “[Mary] entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.” Having heard from the Lord that Elizabeth was pregnant, Mary hurried up through the 93 miles between Nazareth and Jerusalem. When she entered the house, she found the Lord’s Word to be indeed, true, just she had believed. Then she greeted Elizabeth.
Most likely, this wasn’t just a “Hey, how’s it going.” Much more likely, is that Mary told Elizabeth why she was there – that Gabriel said Elizabeth was pregnant and that Mary herself would bear the Son of God. When Elizabeth heard these things, John the Baptist leaped in her womb. Already filled with the Holy Spirit, even before birth, John bore witness to the Son of God. Later in the Gospel he’ll use words, “Behold, the Lamb of God;” but here, he points by skipping – as the Greek says. The Baptist, filled with the Holy Spirit, leaped in the womb at the presence of the Lord.
His mother, also, was filled with the Holy Spirit and cried out with a loud voice, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.” By the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth recognized that the promise of God to save His people by taking on flesh is, even now, happening. In Mary’s womb, the author of all creation has now been found in human form. John leaped in joy at the presence of Christ to save His people. These are the events we celebrate today.
But, now, what does this mean? We’ve learned what led up to the Visitation – Gabriel announcing John and Jesus’ births and telling Mary the same. We’ve learned what happened – Mary went up to Jerusalem and, at her greeting, John leaped in joy at Christ’s presence and Elizabeth, filled with the Spirit, proclaimed that the Lord God has come into her house. Now, we must answer: So what? What does this all mean, and why is it important? A lot of people like Christmas music. I like Christmas music. But, I like Christmas music only for like the 7 days surrounding Christmas, then I’m good. But, I make exceptions for days like today. See, in the calendar, Christmas isn’t for another five months. Christmas is when we celebrate Jesus’ birth. But, Jesus doesn’t just become our Lord after He’s born. He has flesh and blood now. Even now, Christ our Lord has come to save us.
That’s what the Baptist and Elizabeth are saying, and what Mary sings in the Magnificat. Even now, Christ is at work for our salvation. Even now, the plan of God hidden from the foundation of the world has become clear. The very God of very God is and does now share our human flesh. It’s Christmas in July. There is never a point in His life were Christ was not our savior and redeemer. From the very moment of His conception, which we call the Incarnation, Christ our Lord is come to save us. He has looked on us in our sinful state. He has now become like us in every way, sharing in our flesh and blood – yet without sin – so that He might fulfill for us the will of God and suffer as the payment for our sins. That work has already started. It’s Christmas in July.
Lastly, Elizabeth spoke by the Holy Spirit, “Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Whenever we have a holiday like this, one that involves Mary in a significant way, the Lutheran tendency is to recoil. We still have a tendency to react against an overly-high view of Mary instead of simply giving thanks to God for her and recognizing that she is the Mother of God. But, why does Elizabeth call Mary blessed? Because of her faith. Mary was not chosen by God because she was perfect or without sin or had an especially strong faith. She was chosen by His grace. She was counted righteous by faith. And so are we. Now, we aren’t granted the special privilege of giving birth to the Savior. That’s unique to Mary. But, we also are counted as blessed by God’s grace when we believe in Jesus Christ and His death for our salvation.
Today we feast in celebration of the Visitation. In some ways, it is Christmas in July. For, even now, in the womb, Christ our dear Lord has taken on our human flesh and comes to save us.